Why Write the Body?

by Elaine Bealeelaine_bealeIn 1988, when I was twenty-six years old, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammation of the lower intestine. For several months after diagnosis, I became more and more seriously ill and, at one point, was rushed into hospital in the middle of the night. I remember very vividly lying in an exam room under flickering fluorescent lights. In pain, dehydrated, exhausted and very frightened, I asked the doctor if there was anything that could be done to cure the illness was playing such havoc with my body.“Oh, there’s no cure,” she answered, not even looking up from the chart she was paging through. “You’ll have this for the rest of your life.”It was in that moment that everything changed. Despite my diagnosis and worsening symptoms, I had considered myself “healthy” up until that moment. Now I was one of the sick, the disabled, the chronically ill.I hated my body for this betrayal.Though, truth be told, I had hated my body for a while.There were many reasons for this hatred. I grew up in a family where physical abuse was a weekly, if not daily, experience. My body made me vulnerable; it was a place of pain. I grew up female in a culture where the female body attracted hatred, uninvited groping on public transit, threats and actual assault. I was queer amid fierce heterosexism, and my gender-crossing style of dress engendered anger, outrage, disdain. And, I also grew up in a culture seeped simply with fear of the “cripple,” the “flawed,” the “ugly,” and the “weak.”In my experience of illness, I played out what I had learned.I was filled with shame because I had become the “other.” My shame demanded that I pass as healthy. I tried (with mixed success) to hide the fact that I had an illness—from lovers, from co-workers and friends.I punished myself because in my family (and the larger society) I had learned that punishment and abuse is what the weak deserve.I pushed myself relentlessly even in the face of extremely debilitating symptoms. In part, this was because the experience of abuse had equipped me with wonderful tools for disassociation from my body. And, after all, “overcoming” disability and illness is what earns societal praise.I tried to quash the terrible flaw that had arisen within me.I wanted my body to go away.I had always loved writing as a child, and I began writing again as an adult not long after I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. In retrospect, this timing was no coincidence because, gradually, writing gave a voice to the body that I had tried so hard to ignore.When I wrote, I wrote about childhood. I wrote about illness. I wrote about my parents and my family. I wrote about being female and queer in a sexist/heterosexist society. I wrote fantasy. I wrote fiction. I wrote poetry. I wrote memoir. I wrote whatever I felt moved to write.In doing all this, writing helped me to ingest, metabolize and shift my understanding of illness. It helped me understand the ableism of the wider society that had made me think of my body as flawed and ugly and wanting. It helped me to redirect my anger—from inward to outward. It helped me to learn to love what I had been taught to hate.Writing demands solitude. It demands being closely and deeply with ourselves in a way that few other things require. And in doing so, it opens up the possibility of peeling away the layers of the lies we have been told so we can find our own truths. It allows us to find what is deep (and sometimes hidden) within us. And it allows us to give it voice. In doing so, it can allow us to become profoundly liberated from the things that have held us down. It also offers us a means for us to celebrate and proclaim.By writing, we create the opportunity to share our realizations and insights and revelations with others. It creates a new reality from the old.There is a splendid contradiction in writing: in order to do it well, we must depart the present to inhabit our imaginations. Yet, in doing this, we must also being willing to move into a much deeper place within ourselves.  For me, this place is profoundly physical. I write, ironically, from the place in my body that is the site of my illness. I write straight from my gut.On Sunday November 15th, 1pm – 4pm, Elaine Beale will lead a writing workshop sponsored by Sins Invalid. The workshop will include exercises, prompts and discussion that will allow participants to write about their own personal and political experiences of the body. The workshop will take place at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco. For more information, go to http://sinsinvalid.org/whats_new.html.  To register, please email info@sinsinvalid.org.